You didn’t think we’d let the fun end in Key West did you? Of course not! We decided to tack on a couple of extra days to our journey. We said goodbye to my brother, rented a car at the airport and made the drive from Key West to Orlando. Which, making the 3 hour drive through the Keys during the daylight is a remarkable drive. Unique and beautiful.
Our Orlando mission was crystal clear. Harry Potter. We are both HUGE Harry Potter fans and after the recent expansion which added Diagon Alley, well….we simply had to go. We checked into the Cabana Bay Beach Resort, dropped all our luggage and immediately went to the bus station for our free shuttle to Universal Studios. Ladies and gents, it did not disappoint. Even the most die-hard Harry Potter fan would be pressed to find anything to gripe about. Universal has done a landmark job at capturing the atmosphere of all things HP.
I had unreasonably high expectations in my head about Diagon Alley. I felt that the first movie did a great job of capturing the grandeur of the great reveal into Diagon Alley. I knew in my head what it was supposed to feel like, and if it didn’t…I was going to be let down. Fair? Maybe not, but we paid good money to be here. Diagon Alley is, of course, the farthest area away from the entrance.
Past the new Simpson Land, you cross over a bridge into…London? Yep. In front of you will be the London Waterfront complete with number 12 Grimmauld Place and the Knight Bus. Be sure to watch for Kreacher peaking out from the curtain and check out the back of the Knight Bus where you can see inside. Another fun tip? If you dial 62442 (MAGIC) in the phone booth outside King’s Cross, it will connect you to the Ministry of Magic.
However, to my surprise, this area gives you brief pause and is a great way to throw you off your game, because Diagon Alley is 100% concealed behind the waterfront. To enter, they have you deliberately snake around a brick wall so that you get the full experience of Diagon Alley “opening up” before your eyes. Consider the scene when Harry first sees Diagon Alley before him and the camera slowly pans out and up. That’s exactly how it feels in real life. A great big, grand reveal. Definitely a “whoa” moment.
Even though it was crazy-crowded, it somehow added to the feeling of “hustle & bustle” you would expect to see. It felt just as it should. Crooked buildings, kids & adults alike walking around in robes, John Williams’ impeccable score singing through the air, storefronts that spared no expense in detail. An all out assault on your senses. Needless to say, we were quite giddy.
It’s worth mentioning at this point, that our one and only trip to Universal Studios coincided with the two rainiest days Florida had seen in like…I dunno, a century. It was ridiculous. Our rain jackets weren’t enough to cut it, so we broke down and bought ponchos. The gray skies and shiny, wet streets are not a permanent staple of Universal Studios, just during our visit apparently. We did not let it dampen our spirits, however (only our clothes). Nor did we let it discourage us from getting ice cream at Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour.
Make up your mind because you can’t sample anything in here. I get it, lines are too long, gots to keep people moving. Was it delicious? Well, we were wet and cold from the rain…and yet we went back a 2nd time to try the Butterbeer ice cream if that tells you anything! On the left is apple crumble and salted caramel blondie; on the right is clotted cream and earl grey & lavender. Both of the latter flavors were outstanding.
Storefronts are not just for show in Diagon Alley. You can go into just about every one of them! Each unique in their own whimsical way. Ollivander’s, Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes, Madam Malkin’s, Quality Quidditch Supplies, Magical Menagerie…the list goes on. Check out a full list of shops on Universal’s Website.
We managed a spot of lunch at the Leaky Cauldron. Where the inside was vast, and impressive. The food, however, was just okay, and as expected, expensive. However, where else you gonna eat? Time is so precious here! Must see all the things!
Find their menu as well as a more detailed review on Orlando Informer here.
The main attraction in Diagon Alley is Gringott’s Bank where you’ll find Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s ride. As with all the rides, they have lockers where you can store your stuff because you cannot take a bag or anything that won’t fit into your pocket on the ride. This was far and away the best attraction between the two parks (in our opinion) and was so fun we rode it 3 times. Expect lots of twists, turns, herky jerky starts & stops, a little bit of water, a little bit of fire, and a dragon. Also, the queuing area for the ride winds you through the bank which is absolutely beautiful. Oh, and creepy because the Goblins are just sitting there, silently working.
Bonus? The dragon on top of the bank breathes fire every ten minutes. It’s kinda cool. Especially when unsuspecting people scream.
After we felt that we had covered as much of Diagon Alley as we could, we decided to head over to Hogsmeade. Naturally, we took the best transportation available, the Hogwart’s Express which you can only access through…you guessed it Platform 9 3/4. So, we head back to the waterfront and into King’s Cross.
Even the train ride is fun. It’s only 7 minutes or so, but your “window” is actually a screen that takes you on a journey from King’s Cross, through the countryside all the way into Hogsmeade with all of your favorite HP characters. The journey is different going one direction vs. the other.
So, that’s the normal version (there’s a frozen one too) and it tastes like butterscotch in a glass, which is delicious. And the foamy stuff on top? Funny story….silly us thought we had ample time to position the cup in optimal lighting, snap a few photos, “No, turn it more this way so I can get the….ummm….why is the foam growing? Oh….my….goodness, it won’t stop! Quick, drink some of it! Oh, now it’s all over the table. Get some napkins!!!” And that ladies and gentlemen, is butterbeer. Perfect.
We did try both versions of butterbeer. The regular version first based on a recommendation since it has the full flavor, texture and the foam that continues to grow. Then we had to try the frozen one and actually enjoyed it MORE if that’s possible. The slushy texture was refreshing on a hot day and it helped kick a little of the sweetness, plus the foam made it almost creamy. Definitely try both and then go have the Butterbeer soft serve at Florean Fortescue’s to cap it off. >:)
Attached to the Hog’s Head Pub is The Three Broomsticks. Another place to grab grub. We had breakfast here one morning. Again, overpriced ($14.99 for adult breakfast – but that includes a drink and a TON of food), and food was okay – breakfast was a bit better than lunch in Diagon Alley though. You can find their full menu and a detailed review over at Orlando Informer here.
We tried the Traditional English breakfast and the American breakfast. We each needed our coffee, but unfortunately it was akin to most hotel coffee, which is a nice way of saying weak…….It was not good coffee. There, I said it.
Hogsmeade has more rides than Diagon Alley. You’ll find the Forbidden Journey ride in Hogwart’s Castle, which is another 3D experience similar to Escape from Gringott’s. Flight of the Hippogriff is a tame roller coaster, while the Dueling Dragons are two coasters side by side, complete with loops and corkscrews squirrely enough to make you nearly black out. In other words, my kind of coaster. So, we’re not going to leave you without pictures of Hogwart’s itself. I mean, it’s easily one of the most magical things about Harry Potter.
Hagrid’s Hut Bonus (find it at Flight of the Hippogriff, along with Buckbeak still alive and well)
Overall, we spent 1 1/2 days at Universal. We went in September, just after school started back up so the crowds were minimal. This allowed us to see everything we wanted with almost no lines everywhere we went. I’m sure the forecast of 1000% rain had something to do with the short lines as well. All in all, would definitely go back because most importantly, Universal captures the essence of Harry Potter so well. J.K. Rowling herself was a consultant during it’s creation, even making sure the butterbeer recipe was correct. So feel safe in knowing you won’t be disappointed.
Here’s how we spent our short time at WWHP (this worked for us and may help you get a sense of the space/timing):
- Arrived at our hotel for check-in around 2:00pm on Monday and hopped the free shuttle at 3:00pm to Universal Studios.
- Made a bee-line for Diagon Alley and hung out there for a few hours. We checked out most of the shops, saw the wand experience at Ollivanders, had a late lunch at the Leaky Cauldron and managed to ride Escape from Gringott’s. Tip: the shops were packed out by this time of day, rather than stress yourself out go there in the morning when they first open and it’s way less crowded.
- Took the Hogwart’s Express over to Hogsmeade in Islands of Adventure around 5:00pm for a quick peak before they closed at 6:00pm. We managed to grab a mug of Butterbeer, shop at Honeyduke’s and snap some photos before we were scooted out.
- Rode the train back to Diagon Alley because they were remaining open another hour.
- Tuesday morning got up SUPER early to gate crash by 6:30am for early access to Diagon Alley. We were let into the park at 7:00am. Totally worth it to have a nearly dead theme park to ourselves for an hour. The only thing open at this time though is Escape from Gringott’s. We managed to be the first ones on the ride and thus rode it two more times – in a row.
- Spent 2 hours that morning in Diagon Alley shopping and taking photos before heading over to Hogsmeade at 9:00am when they opened where we had breakfast at the Three Broomsticks.
- Walked around Hogsmeade for a bit, checking out all of the shops while our food settled.
- Rode ALL the rides and stopped in the original Ollivanders for more wand magic fun. Tip: there are now TWO Ollivanders wand shops and both do roughly the exact same show. The line for the one in Diagon Alley was non-existent because most people didn’t realize they too have the same wand experience. The line in Hogsmeade took about 20-30 minutes of waiting outside in the hot sun.
- We headed back to Diagon Alley early afternoon to get out of the sun because it is much more shaded where we got more ice cream and tried the frozen butterbeer.
- Then we still had half a day at the two parks to explore the rest of what Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure have to offer for fun outside of the Wizarding World of HP. I know, what else can there be? There’s just Harry right?
- Let me emphasize that we went on weekdays in September and were able to do everything with no or limited wait, but you
maywill need more time that we did if you go during a more crowded time of year or on a weekend. Keep that in mind.
Tips & Tricks:
- Diagon Alley is located in Universal Studios and Hosgmeade is located in Islands of Adventure. You will need a park-hopper pass to access both areas in the same day. Travel between the two areas on the Hogwart’s Express – you MUST have a park hopper to take the train.
- Speaking of tickets: we purchased ours online through UndercoverTourist.com, got them in the mail quickly and actually saved a few bucks ordering through them instead of Universal. Trust me when I say they typically have the best prices for Universal theme park tickets because my wife searched the internet high and low for the best deal.
- Staying at a resort hotel will grant you early access to Universal Studios while they are still offering early access hours at Diagon Alley. We were in line with the gate-crashers at 6:30am, to be let in at 7am (park opened at 8am). The two of us, and one very determined, sweaty man were first in line for Escape from Gringott’s. We got to ride twice in a row because the lines were so short.
- When Diagon Alley starts filling up, head over to Hogsmeade as soon as it opens (typically at 9am) and spend your morning there. Then head back to Diagon Alley later in the afternoon because it actually has shaded areas.
- Check out Orlando Informer’s handy dandy Crowd Calendar for schedules for each park, including events and the anticipated crowd congestion at the parks.
- During the busiest times of year and day, Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley could be subject to wait queues where you need a return ticket to enter. The return ticket system is used when Diagon Alley or Hogsmeade reach capacity – meaning that, if any more guests were allowed in, the size of the crowd could become a safety hazard and the guest experience would quickly deteriorate. Therefore, it is intended to alleviate over-congestion and cut down on ride wait times. We did not have to deal with this at all, but here is the only all-encompassing guide we found on the web. This process does seem to be confusing and not widely known about.
- Download Mobile Apps to save you time: Universal Orlando Maps Free, Universal Orlando Wait Time Free and Universal Studios Wait Free Times by UndercoverTourist.com
- Butterbeer. Two types. Regular and frozen. Try both. Where to get it?
- Diagon Alley : Fountain of Fair Fortune, The Hopping Pot, The Leaky Cauldron
- Hogsmeade : Hog’s Head Pub
- Unguided tours: Gringott’s & Hogwart’s both have unguided tours where you can tote your camera along for pictures, just ask a witch or wizard and they will show you the way!
- Before you go: Check out this all-encompassing tip article on Buzzfeed and review Orlando Informer’s touring plans to ensure you don’t miss a thing!